We should have seen it coming. Not all of it, mind you. Just the phenomenon I’m writing about today.
For back in the days when a pierced nose was considered radical, punk artistes like Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and Lydia Lunch would occasionally release these albums with no music at all on them. They’d just talk about whatever they wanted to: anecdotes about their fucked-up lives, opinions about politics and art, that sort of thing. Now of course, writers like John Giorno, Jim Carroll and Gore Vidal did this sort of thing all the time, but they never fronted punk rock groups, put out their own LPs, or called it Spoken Word. And that, believe it or not, made it more relevant to the dispossessed youth of the ’80s. I mean, Bon Jovi and Brett Michaels never did that. What else did you need to prove in an argument that punk rock had more to say than typical pop music?
But this was in a day and a scene where the biggest people in it were really no bigger or richer than anyone else in their audience. If we had a clue as to what the future would bring, the phrase “cognitive dissonance” couldn’t come close to approximating the severe ontological collapse we all would have collectively experienced. Rollins’s TV show on IFC, Green Day’s stage adaptation of “American Idiot,” and a massive underground which disaffected youth worldwide still support despite punk’s failure to destroy the world that created it – it all manages to co-exist without imploding under the weight of its own contradictions. And add another category to the list while you’re at it: the aging career artist with a story to tell, and an oral history to help him and/or her (you need to include the trannies in this – it’s the Bay Area, after all.) do it. It’s coming to a local punk rock scene to you, and on the day famed LA punk rock impresario Brendan Mullen passed away at 60, I realized the only way I could attempt to make sense of it from a literary perspective was to attend a Spoken Word event in, um… San Francisco, of course! There, the long-running weeklong literary festival Litquake and local spoken word promoters Porchlight hosted a handful of speakers to talk about their days in the scene, all in celebration of the book Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive And Occasionally Pointless History Of Bay Area Punk From Dead Kennedys To Green Day.
I’m kind of used to the oddly subdued nature of gatherings like this – I attended a screening of the old early ’80s punk chestnut “Ladies And Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains” in Portland, Oregon this past August, and just like there, it wasn’t the Mudd Club, or CBGB’s. It was instead the Broadway Theater, and the only people under 21 at this show were chaperoned by their parents. A screen to the side displayed a series of vintage Bay Area hardcore flyers and LP covers running on an iPhoto loop while the aging hipsters consorted amongst themselves.
The book’s authors, Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, come out after the crowd settles to introduce Porchlight’s promoters, who in turn introduce the guests. All of them are featured in the book and will recount their own stories, starting with Bucky Sinister, a burly and bespectacled guy with a crewcut who has apparently had a lot of practice in speaking words as an old-school promoter himself.
As a taste of the anecdotes populating the book, Sinister told the tale of Jeremy Spew, an old pal arrested for Malicious Theft Of Human Remains and Malicious Conduct With Human Remains. Turns out Spew was hanging at Piedmont Cemetery with some friends, and they found an open mausoleum. Entering the mausoleum, Spew found a baby’s corpse, and decided he liked the baby’s head – might make a good hood ornament or something. So he took the corpse back to the punk warehouse space he was subletting, and one of his roomies caught him sawing off the baby’s mummified head with a hacksaw. Well, turns out this house was a intentional community with tons of rules and doctrinaire ideologues, so the guy called the cops on Spew. Spew immediately goes to ground, turns himself in after his friends start getting arrested, and ends up in Santa Rita, where EVERYONE stays away from him, once a convict finds out the charges on his rap sheet. The only person who approached Spew after this got around the prison population was a criminal who lectured him, “When you kill a motherfucker, you don’t take him HOME!”
I was glad to hear this tale, since stories like this always work well at parties. I’ll be frank that I’m not fond of punk oral histories – they tend to be lazy transcriptions of interviews with the author’s buddies. But SF is always good for some bizarre, funny situations, and as Silke reveals, the previous story ranks as the book’s Rashomon, with everyone having a different perspective on it.
Up next was John Geek, the founder of the long-running NorCal punk festival Geekfest, who was a bit less polished and organized as Sinister. His own rambling discussion focused on the DIY aspect of punk and how there are still people organizing events and making music under this banner for the love of its independent, defiant ideals and attitude. He only vaguely alluded to damaged friends who didn’t get back what they put into their community, which sorta bothered me. I mean, we probably need to acknowledge punk’s shortcomings now if we’re to document it fairly, yet those sorts of details were conspicuously absent from his and other people’s discussions of punk’s past (such as Sinister, who has documented his entry into 12-step, yet didn’t mention his days of addiction or how the punk lifestyle may have enabled his self-destructive behavior.)
Following him was probably the most amusing talker of the night, Rozz Rezabek, famous for showing no Love lost in the Nirvana biopic Kurt & Courtney. Storming on with a homemade tee reading “PUNK LEGEND,” he clearly relished the in-your-face absurdity of his past. For where else but punk would a promoter (in this case, Malcolm MacLaren) be told that your band, Negative Trend, was “the WORST BAND IN ROCK MUSIC” and immediately book you for the Sex Pistols’ final gig at San Francisco’s Winterland? But nope, more glorious humiliation still follows our hero around to this day, in particular this YouTube video. (Move the cursor to the last few seconds to see a prime example of punk’s goofy polarization tactics):
Let’s be fair: Rozz clearly understands his responsibilities as a role model. He pointed out his son in the balcony, who only a few weeks ago had chased around some girls at his high school after clenching his testicles with his hands, screaming “Ball juice!”, and hoped he wouldn’t be kicked out for his indiscretion. After all, he reminded us all that “tough love” was a term coined by Parents Against Punk Rockers in the ’70s, hardly foreseeing the troubles their troubled youth would later face as concerned parents themselves. Still, despite the arrests by cops for using tetracycline on his acne and fans like a kid who once sprayed gasoline on his chest with a squirt gun and tried to set him on fire, he’s lived to cash in. He’s got a memoir coming out, and something tells me that like his talk, it will be a laugh and a half.
The other two that followed were a bit of a letdown after Rezabeck. The revelation that the next speaker, Oren Canfield, was the son of the man who started Chicken Soup For The Soul was probably more interesting than Oren’s story itself. After him came Lynn Breedlove from the queercore group Tribe 8 and who I’m guessing would be his (nowadays, she’s a he) old lover, Anna Joy Springer, who, like a few aging punks I know nowadays, is a college professor. My sense is that they tried to do a little Abbott-and-Costello style riffing that didn’t come off really well, though Breedlove had a lot of charm for a dood that looks like Roman Polanski. Their main point was that punk helped bring a little aggression into feminism – you could be a woman and still kick ass, right? Oh, and that it’s not cool for a guy to grab your tits in a mosh pit, but great if a woman does. Gotta love dem PC double standards, yo.
I unfortunately had to leave at the intermission, which meant I missed the set from Penelope Houston, former frontwoman for SF punk heroes The Avengers and current librarian/folk rocker. Yes, a librarian. But think about it: next time you go into a bookstore, you take a look at the employees. Your average bookseller probably employs more outcasts than your average record store once did before it went bankrupt. After else, how many other people besides wordworkers would be smart enough to see past the alternative lifestyle to see a person’s core competency and embrace a more expansive vision of business culture?
One last thing: coming back from the reading, I talked with an old college friend about some local friends of his in Berkeley who recorded a punk version of “West Side Story.” And wouldn’t you know it, but the cover of that very album was included in the slide montage at the beginning of the Porchlight session. He expressed amusement that a silly idea from some friends of his could be cited in academic studies and sold for a small fortune on eBay. All it tells me as I write this is that whatever it is that people still like about punk rock is worth a fortune to them, and it’s something they never, ever want to let go of.
As for me, my initial alignment with outsider culture was not exclusively punk, but it played an important role. And it definitely showed me the sort of writer I wanted to be. And while I respect these sorts of writers, I realized through punk and the subcultures it inspired that I didn’t want to be a David Foster Wallace or a Philip Roth who pushed himself away from the world and gained initial acceptance from other shut-ins who selected themselves away from the common herd. Before you write, you have to speak first, for your community, and say something they care about. After that, it doesn’t matter what some cloistered fools in Manhattan publishing houses and magazine mastheads think. It’s those communities that you have to give to and speak for, not them, if what you say is to be remembered.